political convention

political convention

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Oily Joe Barton

Corsicana, Texas is a nice town of 25,000 people about 50 miles southeast of Dallas and 180 miles north of Houston.  It was named after the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was the family home of one of the city’s founders.  Probably none of this is of much interest to people who’ve never been to Corsicana. But a major event in the town’s history may be. In 1894 Corsicana was the site of the first major oil discovery in Texas. Though the oil industry is no longer important to the local economy, Corsicana is perhaps the closest thing to hallowed ground in the Texas religion of oil.

Corsicana is right in the middle of the 6th Congressional District, which is represented by Republican Joe Barton. He has been in Congress since 1985 and in last November’s election he beat his Democratic opponent by a margin of 35 percent. Barton is the most devoted acolyte of the oil industry in the House of Representatives.  And now he is the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a position that makes him a key player in making national policy on energy, the environment, and conservation.

 Barton is known for his combative and sometimes clownish actions on behalf of the oil industry.  Last June, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, was called before the energy committee to answer questions about the causes and consequences of the devastating Gulf oil spill.  In his opening remarks, Barton astonished just about everyone by apologizing to Hayward. President Obama had chewed out the CEO the day before in a meeting at the White House and won a commitment of $20 billion from BP for environmental cleanup and compensation to spill victims. Barton called the president’s action a “shakedown,” one that no corporation or citizen should have to endure. So he apologized.

One of Barton’s main targets in Congress has been efforts to regulate or curtail carbon dioxide emissions.  CO2 spews into the atmosphere when automobiles burn gasoline. Nearly every reputable atmospheric scientist agrees that it is the most important human contribution to global climate change.  But oil corporations and other industries that profit from burning petroleum and coal think the government is going too far in trying to restrict it.  

To support them Barton has recently introduced legislation to stop carbon dioxide from being designated as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, a law enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.  He told Congress in a floor speech that cutting back on carbon dioxide threatens life rather than helping to preserve it.  

“First of all, greenhouse gases, by definition are necessary for life,” his official website quotes him as saying. “As I stand here Madam Speaker and I speak - I am creating, as I breathe in and out, through the respiratory process CO2. Under the dictates of today’s EPA, I am a mobile source polluter simply because I am breathing. CO2 or carbon dioxide is necessary for life. Greenhouse gases are necessary to protect the environment. They have the ability to prevent heat from escaping into outer space and that is what creates the temperature zone that allows life to exist.”  Barton went on to say that the acceptable levels of carbon dioxide proposed by “radical environmentalist” are too low.  In the past, levels have been thousands of parts per billion higher, he said.

This week the subject of climate change came up again in Congress with the release of a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s perspective on the effects of CO2 was just the opposite of Barton’s.  The report was written at the behest of Congress by a group of eminent scientists, business people, and politicians—hardly radical environmentalists.  They noted that rising sea levels caused by global warming are already affecting coastal cities and that the average temperature in the United States has gone up by two degrees in the last 50 years. The report concluded that scientific studies verify that climate change is real and that there will be profound consequences in the future if urgent action isn’t taken now. 

Barton quickly dismissed the report’s findings, saying it added nothing useful that would lead to an informed decision about climate change and how to deal with it. His seemingly off-handed comments suggested that he had completed only a perfunctory review of the report. 

But no one was surprised. Once again Rep. Barton had fulfilled his role as the energy industry's leading partisan, a position for which he is well paid.  According to the website http://dirtyenergymoney.com, which tracks energy industry contributions to politicians, Barton received more than $1.8 million from oil and coal companies in the last two years. It was the most of anybody in the House of Representatives and just behind Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who raised $1.9 million to lead the Senate.   

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